“A Sense of Wonder”

Outdoor adventures offer students a chance to get to know Loyola and themselves

By Brigid Hamilton  |  Photos courtesy of OAE

First-year students arrive on Loyola’s campus this week, their home for the next four years.

But before they have time to organize their closets, they’ll pack a bag to venture into the wilderness with perfect strangers.

After saying good-bye to their parents, they will say hello to their group of 8-12 fellow first-year students, and to a leader, an upper-class student, who will show them how to make gorp, secure carabiners, pitch tents, and avoid blisters from hiking boots.

And so begins their inaugural Loyola experience.

Each year Loyola’s Outdoor Adventure Experience (OAE) offers a pre-fall orientation program in which incoming students can elect to take part in, well, an outdoor adventure with their peers.

The idea behind the program is to ease the transition to college, to make connections with others before the first week of classes, and, of course, to have fun.

For many students, an Outdoor Adventure Experience is their first experience in the outdoors. With this in mind, each trip is designed to explore the parallels between this new experience and the one awaiting them at Loyola.

The OAE pre-fall orientation program offers first-year students the opportunity to participate in one of six different activities. These include backpacking, canoeing, caving, rock climbing, sea kayaking, and white water kayaking. Each trip is a chance for students to meet their peers in a unique setting before classes start, and to share a common experience.

Over the duration of the trip, the OAE leader will lead discussions on the issues and apprehensions (both academic and social) that come with being a first-year college student, and talk about campus services, clubs, and ways to get involved in student life at Loyola. Leaders undergo training to handle situations like homesickness and communication between participants that often come up during the pre-fall orientation trips.

Students find confidence in knowing that during the first week of school, they already know someone to eat lunch with or say “hi” to as they pass on their way to class. What’s more, students benefit from the relationships they form with the OAE leaders, who can give them insight into life at Loyola.

When they return to Charles Street after several days on the water, in the woods, or scaling rocks, first-year students will be greeted by their fellow classmates from the Class of 2018, who will be arriving to the residence halls and unpacking belongings.

Outdoor adventure experiences

Siobhan McKenna, 16, is an OAE leader and a Pre-Fall coordinator.

The biology/sociology interdisciplinary major was once a first-year student embarking on a multi-day wilderness trip with strangers. Her experience had such an impact, she decided to become a leader.

“In becoming an OAE leader, I wanted to ensure that future students on my trips could see me as a resource in the same way that I relied upon my leaders,” she said.

“In addition, on all of the trips I lead, I hope to convey a sense of wonder and respect for the environment as in order to lead these amazing trips we must keep do our part to protect the outdoors.”

Siobhan McKenna, '16, pictured (middle) in Boise with fellow OAE leaders | Photo courtesy of Siobhan McKenna

As she prepares to welcome first-year students to their first Loyola adventure this week, McKenna reflected on her experience two years ago and what she’s gained as a result of taking a risk and signing up for a kayaking trip in Virginia.

“A sense of wonder”

Flashback to August 2012: I am sea kayaking among a group of 12 people that I have known for less than a week. I make small talk with one girl, not knowing that she will become my best friend in college.

I look at the beautiful water surrounding me and wonder how I have found myself sea kayaking in the back bays of Virginia Beach by day and sleeping in tents by night the week before my first year of college.

I think about how I have never been camping before, as the extent of my outdoor activities has been sunbathing at the Jersey shore.

And yet, I had decided to participate in Loyola’s Outdoor Adventure Experience (OAE) Pre-Fall Program.

Now flash-forward to August 2013: I am on the same sea kayaking trip, paddling the back bays of Virginia Beach—but this time as a leader guiding students who are in the same position I found myself one year earlier.

I decided to become a leader because of the leaders who led my Pre-Fall trip and continued to give me advice and support, even after the trip was over. Without the guidance of my three OAE trip leaders, I would not have known where to find the best Mexican food in Baltimore (Holy Frijoles), or that in order to get a seat at Lessons and Carols, you must get there at least an hour and a half early, and they shared valuable insight about roommates and classes.

As a biology/sociology interdisciplinary major at Loyola, my involvement with OAE has complemented my skills in social interaction, and has furthered my pursuit of medicine outside the classroom; all OAE leaders must complete an extensive Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course.

Outdoor Adventure Experience has given me an education beyond anything I could have imagined upon entering Loyola, instilled in me a confidence to be able to literally and figuratively climb mountains, and a support system of fellow leaders on which I can to rely.

On shared challenges and triumphs

Originally from Jessup, Pa., Victoria Sluko, ’16, is studying communication with a concentration in journalism and a minor in writing and photography.

Victoria Sluko, '16, leading a caving trip | Photo courtesy of Victoria Sluko

As an OAE leader, she has led students on caving trips to Seneca Rocks, W. Va., and canoe trips to Lake George in the Adirondacks. During the school year, when trips tend to stay closer to campus, Victoria takes groups to hike, paddle, and climb parts of Maryland, Southern Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.

This year Victoria is leading the Pre-Fall caving trip for first-year students. She shared what OAE means to her and to the students who experience it.

“Learning outside the classroom”

I’ve been involved with OAE the minute I stepped on Loyola’s campus.

As a Pre-Fall participant three years ago, going on an OAE trip was the first thing I did in my college career.

Before Loyola, I enjoyed skiing and a good hike, but I would definitely not classify myself as an “outdoors” person. I was a ballerina through and through, spending hours a day in the studio.

I’m the classic example of the fact that anyone can become an OAE leader, no matter how unimpressive your back-country skills resume is.

After I went caving with OAE before I started my first year at Loyola, I was hooked. My leaders fascinated me, because they were such good friends; they made the trip so much fun; and, most importantly, they were able to take eight students out into the wilderness for a week.

Seeing my leaders on campus as a freshman and having someone to look up to, inspired me to become the same type of role model to other students.

As a leader, I enjoy participants putting themselves out there and trying something new. And I have had experiences I would never be able to have without this program.

I lead a lot of caving trips, and even though I’ve been through the caves many times, I very much enjoy watching students’ reactions when they first get underground. It reminds me of why I want to share this activity with others at Loyola…

I love watching the group help each other out and push each other through different obstacles on the trip. It’s always exciting introducing others to a new activity.

On my caving trips, once everyone makes it through a tight space or an extremely difficult crawl, the group has such a sense of triumph. It’s a memory they all share.

Another thing I enjoy as a leader is seeing past participants around campus. People start to look up to you and you become a role model around Loyola, even if you just led a day trip or a weekend trip. People don’t forget the leader who made them feel safe, secure, and have a great time.

OAE is about taking learning literally outside of the classroom. By pushing yourself past boundaries and overcoming challenges, participants learn about themselves and their peers in the process.

It takes Loyola’s motto, cura personalis to a new level. And with our team-building games and activities, our late night debriefs, and our reflections, OAE is always interested in working to better our staff and participants.

Getting out there

Outdoor Adventure Experience offers day and weekend-long trips throughout the academic year for undergraduate students.

“The trips are a fantastic way to learn a new activity and escape the chaos of campus life,” Siobhan said.

She explained, however, that these trips are more than just being one with nature…

“In the spirit of the Jesuits, the OAE trips embody cura personalis because of the commitment to work together and solve issues that arise both mentally and physically, whether you’re supporting one another while backpacking up a hill in the Shenandoah National Forest, or giving participants tips for white water kayaking on the Potomac, leaders and participants care for their mind, body, and spirit in order to overcome challenges that the day poses.”

“At the end of each day, OAE leaders facilitate discussions to reflect about the day’s events and discover truths about themselves that they can incorporate into their life at Loyola.”

What can students look forward to this year?

“This year some of the trips to look forward to include weekend and day trips, as well as several trips during fall break. The fall break trips include meditation backpacking (which incorporates yoga, guided meditation, and other relaxing activities after a week of mid-term exams), white water rafting and climbing in the New River Gorge while celebrating Bridge Day, and exploring the caves of Seneca Rocks in West Virginia,” Siobhan said.

“We are hoping to fundraise enough money to be able to go back to Arizona for our climbing trip,” Victoria added.

“These trips are a great way to feel refreshed and re-energized at Loyola mid-semester. And if spending three whole nights in the wilderness seems like too much, OAE offers day trips, too.”

For more information on Outdoor Adventure Experience and their 2014-2015 excursions, visit their websitefollow OAE on Facebook, or stop by “basecamp” at the Fitness and Aquatic Center.

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